Chairwoman DeLauro Statement at Hearing on Administration’s Unaccompanied Children Program

2019-02-27 10:00

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on "Reviewing the Administration’s Unaccompanied Children Program":

The Subcommittee will come to order.

Good morning. I would like to welcome everyone to the Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee’s oversight hearing on reviewing the Trump administration’s Unaccompanied Children program.

Before I start my opening remarks, I want to be sure that we are working from the same set of facts.

I was struck by a timeline that KIND assembled to highlight the way the administration has systematically targeted and dismantled protections for children. You will see it up on the screen. I do not think my colleagues are familiar with the timeline, so I want to walk through some of the major elements.

  • In March 2017, after only two months in office, the administration publicly discussed separating parents and children as a means of deterring future asylum-seeking children.
  • In June 2017, ICE began to target the parents and relatives who came forward to sponsor unaccompanied children.
  • In June 2017, Customs and Border Patrol began a pilot of a “zero tolerance” family separation policy.
  • In November 2017, the administration terminated the Central American Minors program.
  • In April 2018, ORR finalized a memorandum of agreement with ICE to conduct background checks on potential sponsors of unaccompanied children, including fingerprinting all members of a sponsor’s household.
  • In May 2018, the attorney general announced a new official policy to refer all immigrants apprehended at the border for criminal charges and to transfer children to HHS custody as unaccompanied children, which led to thousands of children being taken away from their parents.
  • By June 2018, the administration opened influx shelters at Homestead and Tornillo. At its height, Tornillo held nearly 3,000 children while Homestead is currently at 1,600 and has a plan to reach 2,350.
  • By December 2018, the Unaccompanied Children program had nearly 15,000 children in custody—an all-time high.

I share that before I begin my opening remarks because I think it is important to provide an overall framework for this discussion. That way we understand the scope and breadth of the administration’s actions that are causing harm to unaccompanied children.

First, I want to thank our distinguished panelists for being here:

  • J.J. Mulligan, of the UC Davis School of Law – Immigration Law Clinic;
  • Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense
  • Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission
  • Andrew Arthur, of the Center for Immigration Studies, and
  • Dr. Altha J. Stewart of the American Psychiatric Association

I will also provide a brief introduction for each panelist before their oral remarks.

Thank you for offering your expert testimony this morning and for helping us identify both the root of the problem and the solutions we need to be advancing.

This morning, we are here to fulfill this committee’s oversight responsibility. Demanding accountability is one of the core components of our work here. The American people deserve answers and actions, not evasion and excuses.

There was late breaking news yesterday about instances of sexual abuse, with regards to the unaccompanied children program. It is terrible and further emphasizes why we must be looking into this.

Today, we are here to examine the impact of the administration’s policies with respect to Unaccompanied Children. Intentional policies, in the words of our witness Michelle Brané, quote, “that are exposing children in government custody to lasting and irreparable harm.”  

This is the question before us and this ought to be the question we need to ask ourselves in our souls. Are the actions of the administration producing government-sanctioned child abuse?

For the last two years, senior officials in this administration have twisted and perverted the mission of the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically its Unaccompanied Children program.

The Unaccompanied Children program exists to provide a safe and caring environment for children while dedicated case managers seek to place them with sponsors—most often a parent or close family member.

Statute requires the Office of Refugee Resettlement to “promptly place children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.” They are responsible for reunifying them with parents or family in the U.S. as soon as possible.

Executing this lawful mission has not been this administration’s approach however. Instead, it has attempted to turn Health and Human Services into an immigration enforcement agency. This is not about administrative agencies going above and beyond to ensure the law is upheld. It is about senior officials in this administration turning suffering children and overwhelmed case workers into pawns in the administration’s immigration deterrence policies.

And we know, based on legal precedent, that separation as deterrence policy is illegal.

We requested the testimony today of two senior HHS officials who were in charge during the start and execution of the administration’s family separation policy. That is the former Acting Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families and the former Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

We wanted to ask them key questions because my colleagues on both sides of the aisle need to asses: about the treatment of unaccompanied children, the effect of the family separation policy, the costs, and more.

Unfortunately, the administration declined to make these senior officials available. We will continue to press for them to appear before this subcommittee. So, we will hold future hearings. We need to question those who directly implemented this policy.

As we know, the administration intentionally separated thousands of children from their parents. And, just last month, we learned from the Inspector General that the Trump administration’s family separation policy began much sooner, as soon as 2017. With the result that thousands more children were separated. We are going to demand a full accounting of these children from the administration.

But family separation is only one element of this administration’s ongoing, sustained abuse of these children.

As our witnesses can attest, this administration did not prioritize the health and safety of the children in our care. Instead, through a Memorandum of Agreement, the administration directed HHS to collect immigration information for ICE, which forced tens of thousands of children to spend additional weeks — sometimes months — in federal custody rather than in safe, supportive homes with family members.

What was the result? The average length of time each child spent in federal custody nearly tripled—from about 35 days during the Obama Administration to 60 days last year to almost 90 days this year. One of today’s witnesses, J.J. Mulligan, met several children who had been detained at the Homestead influx facility for over seven months.

As children spent additional weeks and months in federal custody, the overall number of children in the system swelled to nearly 15,000 in December — a record.

As a result, HHS began to move thousands of children to overflow facilities, or influx shelters. These are under-protected, non-permanent facilities. Since they are on federal property they are not licensed by States, which are normally tasked with overseeing safety and security standards.

The 1997 Flores settlement sets national standards for the detention of vulnerable children. And yet, as our witnesses can attest, there have been many instances of violation of Flores.

We know of two such influx facilities. The administration detained as many as 2,800 children at Tornillo, again for potentially months at time. However, there was no education program and for an alarming period of time, there was not adequate background checks or fingerprinting being conducted on the staff. They had an insufficient number of mental health personnel.

Despite this, the Administration offered a no-bid contract worth up to $1 billion to a site operator that would expand Tornillo to 4,000 children. One billion dollars.

We shined a light on the conditions and standards at Tornillo and it has now closed. Yet, there are still 1,600 children in Homestead, Florida.

It costs taxpayers $775 per child, per day, for children these to stay there. So, with the average length of stay (around 70 days), this temporary holding facility is costing taxpayers $55,000 per child.

Influx shelters and costs will be the subject of a future hearing. Where is this money going? To whom is it going? How much is being wasted?

Here is why this all matters. The administration should be quickly placing these children in safe, supportive homes with family members. It is HHS’s role and it is best for the children. Instead, as part of its anti-immigration push, this administration is trying to turn HHS into an extension of ICE, leaving children languishing in federal custody, to their detriment and they are willing to spend a billion dollars to do it.

Studies have repeatedly shown that prolonged detention inflicts serious mental trauma (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, development delays) and compounds trauma experienced in home countries (including trauma from gang violence or sexual violence.)

Now the administration is asking for an additional $220 million dollars for this program. There has been no accountability with the use of these funds. It cannot go on as it currently is. That is unacceptable.

What we have to do is to understand how this happened, why it happened, who was responsible? What is happening now, what has been the impact on children, what are its long-term consequences including mental health and trauma? How do we stop this? How do we fix it? What resources are necessary?

I am happy to provide resources. What I cannot do is condone the policies that are putting children at grave risk at considerable cost to taxpayers. We cannot throw good dollars after bad.

And of course, the failures of this administration as they relate to the Unaccompanied Children program are not because of an unprecedent surge of children. In fact, the number of unaccompanied children referred to ORR was higher in the Obama administration (2016: 59,000 children, 2018: 50,000).

The failures and the trauma we are seeing are a result of this administration’s cruel policies. I want to quote Michelle Brané “crisis at the border is a crisis of policy.” This is a manufactured crisis.

As the Congress, we have an obligation to ensure the Executive Branch is fully and faithfully upholding the law of the land. Turning HHS into an immigration enforcement agency and inflicting harm on scared children is neither of those.

What happened and what continues to happen is inexcusable and defensible. I am commitment to uncovering the truth but what is more important is what will we do about it.

I am grateful for the solutions and recommendations from our panel. I look forward to working with you and looking forward to your testimony.

Now, let me turn it over to my good friend from Oklahoma, the Ranking Member, Mr. Cole, for any opening remarks he cares to make.

I also want to welcome the ranking member of the full committee, Congresswoman Kay Granger.

116th Congress